Dyan Branstetter | December 2015

The Nutcracker Project: Unit Outline, part 2

For the past two weeks, I have shared how I use the Nutcracker project to engage students during the month of December. This project is done in my regular classroom without direct support from specialists. Why? Because our schedules, unfortunately, don’t allow for it. Today, you will find the arts and informational writing components of the project, which complement the language arts components previously shared.

Most of the art connection is with dance, which of course includes music, with a multitude of music lessons written specifically to teach Tchaikovsky’s the Nutcracker project Suite. Instead of explicitly teaching these lessons, my music instruction is embedded as I teach the choreography while students learn to count the music and respond to changing dynamics and styles.

Arts Portion of the Nutcracker Project:

1.Introduce the music.

Before beginning the unit, I play Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Marche during transition times each day. I also post the audio on my class Edmodo site which students can listen to. I like students to know this music very well before we start learning choreography because the changes in the music tell the students when changes in movement happen. Students not only listen at home, but they also listen during independent work time. Once they learn the choreography, one of their tasks throughout the week is to wear headphones and “think” through their part, similar to audiation in music.

2. Give students background on ballet.

I start by explaining that ballet tells a story without spoken words. Dancers use movement in combination with music to convey the plotline. I share the basics of ballet movement, such as standing with good posture, holding a position without wiggling around. We also discuss theater-in-the-round because we perform our version on our gym floor with the audience surrounding us.

We practice finding the beat in the music, usually by practicing chassés across the floor, which they perform repeatedly in our opening dance scene. After teaching the choreography, I troubleshoot and clean up our movement by reminding the students that the music always tells us what step to do. When needed, I have the students listen without moving and watch my demonstration so they can focus on the musical cues instead of performing the steps.

During transition times, I play clips of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker project, performed by the New York City Ballet. Find it here: (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OZ5Se2ErinU) I also post this on my Edmodo site for students who are interested in watching more. Extension: As we are comparing text versions of the Nutcracker project, I show the Kirov Ballet perform at the Mariinsky Theatre (Find it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xtLoaMfinbU). Students who have started researching the History of the Nutcracker usually chime in here, explaining that this is the first place the ballet was ever performed. We talk about the similarities and differences in the two productions, and we talk about different choreographers’ interpretations of the music.

3. Teach the Choreography:

Now that the more reluctant students are on board with the movement, I pass out an interest inventory. (See sample: NutcrackerInterestSurvey). I provide this for students so that I can better assign parts based on their interest, and I also plan my lunch recess rehearsals based on which students are willing to stay in with me. (Nearly all students opt to do this.) I like to use my planning time (student lunch recess) twice a week to teach parts that do not involve the entire class to help with management. Finally, I teach the remaining dances and begin to run them in order with student narrators in between.

Informational Writing Portion of the Project:

During my writing class with the same group of students, students split into research teams to create the informational part of the written program, which is given to audience members. After teaching note-taking, reviewing non-fiction text features, and basic research skills, students begin finding information on P.I. Tchaikovsky, E.T.A. Hoffmann, nutcrackers, and the history of the Nutcracker Ballet. During Education Closet’s February STEAM & Arts Integration Conference, I will share my favorite resources and links for these topics.

Student groups begin with a KWL chart that guides their research (KWL). I then create a Padlet (padlet.com) for each group to add and organize notes as well as share their findings when they are not together. I start by facilitating research with the whole class, but once groups are more independent, I pull small groups with a challenging piece of text on their topic. This allows us to do a non-fiction reading lesson while students find new information to add to their note cards. Students publish in our class Google Docs account, and I copy and paste the published versions into the final program.

The Performance!

Our final step is to invite parents and our student body to an assembly.  We don’t have costume changes, as students are “on stage” the entire performance. Plus, we use very limited props. Other than the audio, it is a completely student-run show. Students will pass out the programs, students narrate, and students dance!

Questions? Comment below, and tune in on February 6th for the STEAM and Arts Integration Online Conference (http://artsintegrationconference.com/)!

About the Author

Dyan is a fifth grade teacher in a public school district in Lancaster, PA and has over 16 years of classroom experience. With a Masters of Science Education and a passion for dance and music, she strives to integrate the arts into the curriculum whenever possible. Dyan has a background in teaching advanced learners, and is devoted to using project based learning to help her students achieve 21st century learning skills and master the PA Core Standards.